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In the early and mid-1800s, rugby football emerged as a football game played at rugby school in England. They used somewhat plump oval balls made of inflated pig’s bladders encased in leather. This gave a rounded, ovular shape that was ideal for carrying and kicking, essential parts of early rugby.
As rugby made its way to North America in the later 1800s, pioneers of the game made small tweaks to both rules and equipment. One key figure was Walter Camp, considered the “father of American football,” who helped shape rugby into a unique game optimized for an American audience.
One tweak he advocated was elongating the ball slightly to make it more aerodynamic. This facilitated throwing and catching, as the early American game begin to incorporate the forward pass which set it apart from rugby. Elongation made the ball shape resemble a prolate spheroid.
Over a period of decades, as the forward pass became a more integral part of American football strategy, the ball evolved further in this direction. By gradually refining and standardizing proportions, the optimal football shape was engineered to allow for better grip, tighter spirals, and more accurate passes.
The use of pointed ends and pronounced leather laces was also developed during this transitional period to provide superior handling when passing, catching, and kicking the ball. By the early 1900s, the general form and lace-up style of the modern football was established. Further refinements since have been minor.
So in essence, the American football draws inspiration from rugby beginnings but evolved its distinctive shape in parallel with the advancement of the forward pass to create a ball tailored specially for throwing. This crucial adaptation is a big reason why the American and rugby footballs remain distinctly different today.
American footballs are shaped the way they are because:
- Aerodynamics – The prolate spheroid shape allows the football to cut through the air efficiently when thrown in a spiral. The pointed ends create less drag compared to a spherical shape. This allows quarterbacks to throw tighter, more accurate passes.
- Grip – The laces and seams on the football give players more grip and control when holding, throwing, and catching the ball. This is especially important in cold/wet conditions.
- Bouncing – The football’s shape causes it to bounce unpredictably, adding an element of chance and excitement, especially when fumbled or kicked. A more spherical ball like a soccer ball would bounce truer.
- History – Originally, footballs were more rounded and rugby-like. As the forward pass became legal in the early 1900s, the ball evolved to its current more aerodynamic shape to facilitate passing. Over decades, the optimum shape was refined to what we see today.
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